Studying art in all of its forms gives children an outlet for their ideas and a set of skills they can draw on later in life. At Forsyth School in St. Louis, opportunities for creativity are present throughout the curriculum, including the Nicholas Aaron Aitken Artist-in-Residence program established a decade ago. Art teacher Ellen Gomez DeFilippo says the elementary school’s students are hugely inspired by the professional visual artists who participate, and it’s gratifying to see them share their love of creative expression.

Bart and Tamara Aitken created the endowed program in memory of their son, a student who passed away in 2009. “He loved school, and his happiest moments were spent in the art room,” DeFilippo says. “His family felt that sponsoring artists in residence would be a fitting way to honor his life.” Each fall, an artist is invited to work with fifth-graders for about a dozen class sessions, teaching them new techniques and helping them complete a particular project.

Finished masterpieces have included a mosaic mural, frescoes, paintings, self-portraits, prints, ceramics, sculptures and a book of students’ drawings. “More than 500 kids have gone through the program, and they have loved getting to know the artists,” DeFilippo says. “Many students have been inspired to pursue art in high school and college as well. We’ve had graduates go on to places like the Rhode Island School of Design and the Ringling College of Art and Design.”

She identifies new artists for the program by visiting gallery openings and talking with members of the fine arts community. “We choose people who work in a variety of media,” she notes. “In 2014, we had a husband and wife team who helped the kids create stop motion animation. Another year, we had a printmaker from Washington University who invited the kids to tour his studio. This semester, students are mixing colors and glazing tiles for a serpentine wall here on campus. They don’t just learn different media; they also are taught about the research and planning that go into an exhibit.”

Students even are encouraged to use art as a way of solving problems. One artist asked them to identify what needs to be fixed in the world, and they came up with images and text to illustrate their ideas on topics like pollution and global warming.  “It was a truly thought-provoking activity that combined the disciplines of writing and drawing,” DeFilippo says.

The Artist-in-Residence program is celebrated and shared with the community  in many ways, including special exhibitions of students’ work. The school recently held an anniversary reception at Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and William Shearburn Gallery and Bruno David Gallery offer their space for student exhibits as well. “Organizations like these are wonderful partners for our program,” DeFilippo says.

Ultimately, the purpose of the Artist-in-Residence initiative is to show students that art can and should be an important part of their daily lives. “We want to cultivate a love of expression with an emphasis on collaboration,” DeFilippo says. “Hands-on learning and teamwork fit right in with the school’s mission. Our students are so fortunate to have this one-of-a-kind experience.”

Forsyth School, and independent, private elementary school in St. Louis, nurtures students’ growth and creativity with engaging educational experiences. It serves children from age 3 through grade six. Pictured on the cover: Artist Margaret Keller and instructor Ellen Gomez DeFilippo with students. For more information, call 314.726.4542 or visit

Cover design by Julie Streiler | Cover photo by Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton Photography

Pictured at top: Artist Kevin McCoy works with students.
Photo: David McLeod Lewis